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HHS Chief: Swine Flu Vaccines Ready Soon

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

As the administration wrestles with health-care reform, there was some good health news for a member of the team in the past few days: Help is on the way for the swine flu.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said upwards of 50 million doses of a new vaccine for the H1N1 virus will be available in mid-October, earlier than expected, with millions more doses quickly following.The initial vaccines will go to what Sebelius calls "priority populations" -- caregivers, young people ages 6 to 24, hospital workers, pregnant women and some seniors. They add up to about 160 million people, or nearly half the U.S. population.

"The clinical trials have shown that the vaccine is effective in a single dose and effective within 10 days," she said in a Voices of Power video interview. "We should have adults immunized a lot faster than we had feared. We were thinking Thanksgiving might be the worry window, and it may be a lot sooner than that."

Sebelius hails from America's heartland, both by birth and by political choice. She grew up in Ohio, the daughter of Gov. John Gilligan, and set up her political base in Kansas, where she was elected governor. As she pushes health-care reform for the Obama administration, she understands better than many why people in the middle of the country may be scared of it. "I think the status quo is always a little easier to sell," she said, "and certainly there has been a lot of misinformation."

As to why the administration has been intent on passing bipartisan legislation when Democrats might have the votes to move forward without Republicans, Sebelius said that is changing. "We are reaching that position that the president will work with anybody who wants to move ahead. . . . But if your only intention is to stop action . . . then we'll move right by you," she said.

HHS has the budget of a small country, and the former governor has in her bailiwick such items as food and drug safety to contagious diseases to Medicare. During his speech to Congress last week, President Obama assigned her more work: medical malpractice reform, as part of overhauling health care.

Some have suggested this could be akin to putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Sebelius once worked for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association -- not big fans of tort reform or capping malpractice awards.

"Well, I think I am just the person to do it, because I think I understand the system of litigation very well," she said. "I understand that we want to . . . compensate injured victims, but the defensive medicine is not helpful to the overall cost of the system. I think that the opportunity to have faster compensation for injured victims is one that most lawyers that I know support."

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